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The Gendered Story of Naxalbari


The mainstream media has hardly documented the role played by female Naxals during the Naxalbari movement; Nandini C Sen looks to correct that mistake.
NANDINI C SEN | Issue Dated: June 5, 2016, New Delhi
Tags : Naxalbari | Nariardhek Akaash | Hazar Churasi Ki Ma | Bandopadhyay | Joya Mitra |

Naxalbari is a sleepy town in North Bengal which was jolted out of its soporific existence on the 25th of May 1967 when the police opened fire on a group of villagers who were demanding their right to the crops on a piece of land. The firing killed 9 adults and 2 children. What would have passed into a routine event of police oppression became India’s biggest struggle for land – the only struggle which saw the educated middle class stand by the peasantry demanding the right to ownership of land for the tiller. The leadership of the struggle came from the middle class – Charu Mazumdar and Kanu Sanyal who were guided by the leadership of Mao Zedong. The tillers were represented by Jangal Santhal who supported Mazumdar’s ideology.

By 1971 the Naxal fire had spread across Bengal with radical students joining the agitation by dropping out of schools and colleges. Responding to Mazumdar’s clarion call the urban students from premier institutions quit their studies, relocated themselves to the villages and fought against the land owning jotedars in order to ensure equitable distribution of land. The Movement had built up steam and spread like wildfire across Bengal, Bihar and its neighbouring states.

The Movement was quelled with an iron hand by the State. Young men and women were incarcerated, shot at point blank range and their families were subjected to the severest forms of torture. The State repression was as brutal as it was merciless.

Naxalbari was a failure as the class struggle was never won but it caught the imagination of the masses and saw it reflected in the literature and cinema of its times. Literary journals like Aneek and Kalpurush propagated the Naxal ideals and literary groups such as the Hungry Generation, the Krittibas and the Nandimukh groups were radical in their thoughts and writing. Mrinal Sen’s Calcutta 71 and Mahasweta Devi’s novella’s cinematic version Hazar Churasi Ki Ma are among numerous films glorifying the sacrifice of the youth and talking about their disillusionment with the system. The Movement which came thirty years into the country’s Independence and which saw the highest form of intellectualism and idealism still continues to inspire the creative conscience of the Nation.

The Naxal phase was also unique in the participation of the women who fought alongside the men and shared the collective dream of classless and egalitarian India and yet there is very little study on the women’s contribution. “Nariardhek Akaash” "Women hold up half the sky", Mao and the Chinese revolutionaries proclaimed that there could be no emancipation for humanity without the participation and emancipation of half of society – its women.

Therefore it is important to relook at the collective silence regarding the documentation of the woman’s role. The struggle was land based as the ‘heroic peasant’ was seen fighting for his rights with the educated intelligentsia by his side. While this struggle caught the imagination of the nation and gave birth to a wealth of creative and academic writing, the ‘woman question’ was never fully articulated. Both the Colonial discourse and the anti- colonial/ nationalist discourse fashioned by the Indian patriarchy chose to look at women merely as mothers, daughters and objects of desire even in their avatars as guerrilla fighters. As a result the women entered the nationalist literary and political imagination not as subjects with political goals of their own but as friends, relatives and lovers of men who are the real political subjects.  This does not mean that in actuality the women have not participated in the Movement nor does it mean that they have not substantially contributed to the culture and politics of the shaping of the armed struggle. The woman revolutionary was always perceived in sexual terms while her male colleague was seen in the roles of either the protector or violator. The male leadership of Naxalbari engaged in international debates and participated in them actively however the “woman question” within the party was not negotiated with. For the women within the struggle it was a dual bind – while their activism freed them from the patriarchal confines of their homes, yet the same Party politics which gave them a voice sought to control their bodies and sexuality much like the organisations against whom they were seen to be rebelling against.

The writings by Naxalbari women are unfortunately limited to a few urban voices. Notable among these are the prison memoirs by Meenaxi Sen and Joya Mitra and a brief autobiographical rendition by Krishna Bandopadhyay.

Naxalbari opened new vistas for the women. Some women recall their days in the Movement as “The magical moments”. Freed from the patriarchal norms, those were the days of a certain kind of headiness, striving towards a goal and the camaraderie of some like minded friends. These memories however, need to be looked at from the caste/class angle. Since women’s voices are rarely heard in the academic history and barely remembered in the dominant social memory of the Movement, it is extremely difficult to glean her voice from the existing archive. Marginalisation of her participation and being relegated to the sidelines automatically takes the woman’s narrative to a space beyond recorded history and dominant memory.

At the very start of my interview with Joya Mitra, she talks of her love for environmental issues. I try to take her back to the Naxal days when she interrupts me to add that her sensitivity to the world grew out of her commitment to the Movement.

“I joined the movement immediately after my graduation in 1967. I was 17 years old. I was drawn to one particular person on the Naxalbari Krishak Sangram Sahayak Committee. He talked to me about Marxism, and I joined the group. We got married soon after, though the marriage broke up within a year. My younger brother also joined the movement – my mother had sent him to keep an eye on me, but he too got involved. He was arrested in 1972 and tortured, before he was even 17 years old. I spent more than four years in the movement, living in villages in West Bengal and then Bihar, and the education I got was more than what I would have received from attending many universities. Being a woman, I could enter spaces where men could not – in homes and families, where the inner coterie was all women. I received a lot of love and affection from the village communities. Theirs was the real protection I had, which made it possible for me to dodge the police. A blind boy used to sleep just outside my room. His hearing was excellent, so if the police came looking for me, he would wake up immediately and warn me. “

Those “special” days sustained and gave birth to the activist that she is today. Krishna Bandopadhyay also remembers the Movement as something which gave her a sense of direction. The fact that today she is invited to school ceremonies where students address her by her activist name “Joyadi” fills her with pride.

“I was young and didn’t understand fear. I was given tasks of ferrying literature from one place to the other. I even carried a revolver. I never needed to use it but it gave me a sense of safety,”Bandopadhyay says with a smile.

On being asked why she treated her own life with so much impunity her face lights up and the age lines seem to disappear.

“We never thought about ourselves. We only thought of our country – we wanted to make it a better place, an egalitarian place. And if I had not done that would you have come today to take my interview?”

Both Joya Mitra and Krishna Bandopadhyay are settled in happy domesticity but as one converses with them, it becomes amply clear that they have a life outside of their homes. Their activism gives them a special edge and they are respected by people around them. All this and more they owe to their days as young Naxal cadres which shaped them and made them the aware citizens and activists that they are today.

Joya Mitra’s prison memoirs recount the absolute horrors of her incarceration and the state sponsored torture. However she has been able to put that in the past and dreams for the betterment of her family and the country.

The dream of wanting to change the country into a fair and just space for all has come to naught but for these women their zest for life remains intact and they still dream of their share of being able to possess half the sky.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017